Historians usually must wait many years to understand how presidents make decisions in the heat of crisis. But the publication this week of Bob Woodward's new book, "Bush at War," provides a rare chance to understand the leadership style of the man who now sits in the Oval Office.
Woodward's account, based almost entirely on sources close to the president, is undoubtedly tilted in Bush's favor. But the reporting rings true, and it offers detailed accounts of key meetings of Bush's war cabinet. These are the kinds of historical nuggets that took decades to emerge with other wartime presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson.
Bush's record as a wartime leader thus far bears comparison to these giants of American history. Bush has shown an ability to tolerate dissent among strong war cabinet officials, and a dexterity in leaning toward hawkish or dovish advisers at the right moment. He has displayed patience and steady nerves. And most important, he has maintained a relentless determination to achieve final victory.
Bush himself is blunt in explaining what a leader must do in wartime. "A president has got to be the calcium in the backbone," he told Woodward. "If I weaken, the whole team weakens. If I'm doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt."
While Woodward's account portrays Bush as a sturdy commander in chief, it leaves many questions. Does Bush have the vision and creativity to be a great president? Does his action-man toughness conceal a brittleness and lack of depth? If he is a man of principle, as the book suggests, why does he seem so political in his domestic policies? It will take time, and a true historian's eye, to seriously assess these issues.
The decisive scene in the book, for this reader, is Woodward's portrait of an Oct. 26, 2001, meeting of the National Security Council. The war in Afghanistan seemed to be going badly at the time, with heavy U.S. bombing raids having little effect in cracking the ruling Taliban militia. The press was starting to publish articles speculating that Bush had waded into a Vietnam-like quagmire. And Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was wondering aloud to her boss whether Bush should ask his advisers to suggest alternative strategies.
At this crucial moment, by Woodward's account, Bush held steady. When his war cabinet gathered that morning in the White House Situation Room, Bush made them take what was virtually an oath of allegiance. "I just want to make sure that all of us did agree on this plan, right?" Bush asked his advisers, according to Woodward's account. They all nodded assent. "Anybody have any ideas they want to put on the table?" the president asked. There were no proposals for an alternate strategy.
"You know what?" Bush then told his advisers, according to Woodward. "We need to be patient. We've got a good plan. . . . We've only been at this 19 days. Be steady. Don't let the press panic us."
And as we know now, the Afghanistan plan did work, at least in its limited objective of replacing the Taliban and destroying sanctuaries for al Qaeda terrorists. In early November, Mazar-e Sharif fell, and then Kabul.
Woodward's instant portrait of Bush and his advisers allows us to compare them to previous war cabinets. In Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush has strong-willed antagonists worthy of Lincoln's cabinet, where Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Secretary of State William H. Seward battled endlessly over war policies toward the South.
Somehow, Bush has been able to use both Powell and Rumsfeld and draw the best out of each. When diplomacy is needed, he tilts toward the dovish Powell; when it is time to fight, he embraces the hawkish Rumsfeld. That ability to juggle competing points of view in a strong war cabinet was also characteristic of FDR's presidency.
Bush also insists that his advisers pursue every advantage and drive toward victory. One suspects that he, like Lincoln, would have replaced the sluggish Gen. George B. McClellan, of whom Lincoln famously observed after his failure to follow up the victory at Antietam that he had "the slows."
Like JFK during the Cuban missile crisis, Bush displayed patience even when his advisers were rattled. And he had a Kennedy-esque fondness for the $70 million covert strategy to buy tribal loyalty in Afghanistan that was proposed by CIA Director George Tenet, who emerges from the book as Bush's most important adviser.
Finally, Bush is not haunted by self-doubt in the same way as Lyndon Johnson, perhaps the nation's least successful wartime president. Reading the transcripts of Johnson's taped telephone conversations in 1964 is almost heart-rending. The president knew Vietnam would be a disaster, yet he could not act on that belief.
"I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more I think of it, I just don't know what in the hell . . . " Johnson anguished about Vietnam. "I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think that we can get out. It's just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw."
Bush insisted to Woodward that he has been sleeping fine as a wartime president, until his wife reminded him of how she had found him lying awake late at night. That disclosure is reassuring too, in its way. Bush couldn't have done such a good job without losing some sleep over it.